If they find a cake big enough to hold all the candles, I'm betting that Nerud will blow 'em all out. In one gust.
On the phone, I asked John if he was still driving around Long Island.
"Yeah, I am," he said. "I still know my name, and I can find my way home. The golf, not any more, though it's only been a couple of years that I haven't played. I still get on the bicycle every day."
"You ride a bicycle?" I said.
"The stationary one," Nerud said.
"I bred the horse and I bred the trainer," John Nerud said. "So it was a real family affair, wasn't it?"
And by the way, the Breeders' Cup, first run in 1984, wouldn't have been welcomed with trumpets if Nerud hadn't been riding shotgun for John Gaines, founder of the annual affair. Nerud was the first marketing director of the Breeders' Cup and largely responsible for the races opening with wall-to-wall national TV coverage.
When we spoke recently, I didn't bore Nerud by asking him to recall once more how Gallant Man's jockey, Bill Shoemaker, blew the 1957 Derby by briefly standing up in the irons after he misjudged the finish line. Iron Liege won by a nose.
Over the years, Nerud has told that story enough. After the disheartening finish, he went to one of the bars at Churchill Downs and ordered the biggest glass of vodka they had. Routinely, the bartender started to throw in a lemon twist. Nerud waved him off. "If I wanted lemonade," he said, "I'd have ordered one."
As though losing the Derby wasn't enough, Shoemaker was also hit with a 15-day suspension by the stewards. Gallant Man skipped the Preakness, and Ralph Lowe, the owner of the colt, tried to cheer up Shoemaker by buying him a new Chrysler.
"It wasn't bitterness that kept us out of the Preakness," Nerud said. "With Shoe suspended, we would have needed a rider change, and I didn't want to put the colt through the Triple Crown grind. The race we wanted was the Belmont. We might have won the Preakness, but could have worn out the horse for the Belmont, so we just decided to wait."
In an unprecedented tour de force in 1968, Dr. Fager copped four titles--Horse of the Year, best handicap horse on dirt, best grass horse and best sprinter.
"There's never been a horse like him," Nerud said. "He could carry weight, he won sprinting, at a distance and on grass, and he was the fastest horse that ever lived."
Nerud was knocked off his stable pony one morning and almost died after suffering a fractured skull. Dr. Charles Fager, a Boston brain specialist, did the surgery.
"Doc, I appreciate what you done," Nerud said when he was out of the woods. "One of these days, I'm gonna name a horse after you. It won't just be another horse, either. It'll be a good one."
Nerud has a theory about naming horses.
"There was never a good horse named Alfredo," he said.
Charlotte Nerud, Nerud's wife of 67 years, is not doing well.
"She needs help 24-7," Nerud said. "We try to make it as comfortable for her as we can."
Nerud remembered the parties Charlotte use to throw, going all the way back to the 1950s in Florida.
"We didn't have any money, but we managed to get everybody together, anyway," Nerud said. "We got Joe Hirsch started. Some of the guys had trouble warming up to him early on, but we had him over to one of our parties. He met a lot of the horse people, and took it on his own from there."
We talk a few times a year. Nerud is as current as the Daily Racing Form on the horse game.
"The horses are still important," he said. "They keep the phone ringing, and that's a sound I like to hear."